Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Heroes of the Writers' Strike

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Kleptocratic Mindframe

"They didn't see, these young men, that there was anything to build in their country. As far as they were concerned, it was all there already. They had only to take. They believed that, by being what they were, they had earned the right to take; and the higher the officer, the greater the crookedness -- if that word had any meaning."

From A Bend In The River by V.S. Naipaul.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Dot, Pyongyang

The Republic of Korea, in the south, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, in the north -- from space.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Tokyo Nights

Tokyo Nights by Donald Richie (U.S.-Japan 1988).

There is a point in every story when the plot needs to kick in.

While I agree with film critic Roger Ebert that commercial American cinema is weighed down by plot at the expense of character or style, surely the opposite can be true as well. Halfway through a story, the audience needs to have an idea of what the characters are trying to achieve and what is standing in their way.

Tokyo Nights never reaches that point. The novel reminded me of a shoji screen: a weak, repetitious frame covered by thin, translucent paper.

The tepid story unfolds from the Yamato, a nightclub in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. It is the late 1980s, the height of the Bubble Economy, and newly wealthy Japanese are looking for places to drink away the night at exorbitant prices. If a good-looking member of the wait staff is open to a quick turn in the closest “love hotel,” all’s the better.

Madame Mariko manages the Yamato and is conducting what appears to be a fits-and-starts affair with Hiroshi, a married corporate president who finances the Yamato as a hobby. Mariko probably wants more of Hiroshi’s attention and definitely wants more of his money, since she believes the nightclub’s Louis XIV French decor has become passé and an expensive remodel to an Old Japan theme would renew the club’s fortunes.

One of the Yamato’s former waitresses, Mitsuko, works as a hostess in a lesbian bar when she’s not club hopping with her mousey friend Sumire. Hiroshi has become keen on Mitsuko, but needs his old classmate Saburo, who owns a gay bar, to distract Mariko, but, in the process, Saburo becomes attracted to Sumire.

None of these shufflings of the relationship deck is particularly interesting. Each short chapter is set in a Tokyo club or restaurant, always after dark. The book is heavy on dialogue, which is not presented in quotation marks but with dashes to designate a new speaker. The over-reliance on spoken banalities allows for few descriptions of the novel’s fascinating settings.

Tokyo Nights could have been a Bonfire of the Vanities, a kaleidoscopic tour of Tokyo’s demimonde at the height of Japanese economic power. Instead, it’s a series of boring conversations about who will go drinking with whom.

The failure of Tokyo Nights is all the more surprising because its author is Donald Richie, one of the world’s most renowned Japan experts. Born in Ohio, Richie moved to Japan in 1947 and lives there still. His travel writing, such as The Inland Sea, captures places, times and moods. His DVD commentaries to classic Japanese films (often released by the Criterion Collection) are mini-tutorials on Japanese art, history and culture.

It’s shocking that Richie wrote a colorless and limp book about Japan.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Quoted In Portfolio

Sherman Oaks, California

Kit Roane files a piece for Portfolio magazine about travel to hostile countries. Key paragraph:

"Paul Lukacs exemplifies this new type of traveler. In Turkmenistan, the Los Angeles entertainment lawyer marveled at the many statues commemorating Saparmurat Niyazov, the country’s now-deceased dictator and 'president for life.' In Sri Lanka, Lukacs witnessed a place in the grip of civil war. And in North Korea, he said, he glimpsed 'one of the world’s few remaining unreconstructed command-and-control economies,' where blackouts are a daily occurrence.

" 'Why go to Barcelona when you can visit Ceuta or Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves in Africa?' Lukacs says. 'When I travel, I want to be far away from my world, to see how differently other people live, to learn what traits are human constants and which ones are cultural color.'"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"Voyage of the Damned" Countdown

Sherman Oaks, California

Exactly 70 days, precisely 10 weeks, until the broadcast of the Doctor Who Christmas special "Voyage of the Damned," in which the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, lands on the Titanic and meets a waitress named Astrid, played by Kylie Minogue (both pictured). The special will air in the U.K. on BBC One on Christmas Day and will air in the U.S. on the Sci Fi Channel on an undetermined date.

For some of us, this is a very big deal.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Good Reading: North Korea

Sherman Oaks, California

 Bobby Egan is a rough and tumble guy from the neighborhood who owns a BBQ joint in Hackensack called Cubby’s. He is also the president of the U.S.A.-D.P.R.K. Trade Council, devoted to improving relations between the United States and North Korea. Rebecca Mead reports for The New Yorker about one of the world’s more unusual diplomats.

(While Egan comes across in the article as an overexcited Sopranos-wannabe kind of guy, he’s as sober as Lawrence Eagleburger compared to the legendary Alejandro Cao de Benos de Les y Perez, head of the Korean Friendship Association. North Korean television has created a short documentary about Alejandro titled "I Will Be A Soldier of Marshal Kim Jong-il II.")

 North Korea Economy Watch posts an article about the secret library in Pyongyang where restricted books may be read by trusted Party cadres. Located on the fourth floor of the Grand People’s Study House, many of these books are of foreign origin, with free market economic texts available to teach the superiority of a collectivist economy. Many foreign books in North Korea were destroyed in the late 1960s as part of Kim Il-sung’s “Book Arrangement Activity,” but non-controversial works of pre-World War II American literature are now allowed, according to NKEW's sources.

 The above photograph of Kim Jong-il inspecting the (attractive, female) troops was allegedly pulled from a Chinese military internet site. I cannot confirm its authenticity, although the women are wearing the 1946-style pantyhose that's still the rage in Pyongyang.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Knife Tricks Recommends: Two New Books

Sherman Oaks, California

The friends of Knife Tricks are a literary bunch, and two have recently published books.

Blogger and writer-producer Michael X. Ferraro is the co-author of Numbelievable: The Dramatic Stories Behind the Most Memorable Numbers in Sports History. Published by Triumph Books (now a Random House imprint), Numbelievable is a fun roundup of the most important or memorable numbers in professional sports, such as Roger Bannister’s 3:59 mile or Roger Maris’ 61* home runs in one season. The book is currently available for pre-order online and will hit the shelves late this month. Of course, all Knife Tricks readers know that the most important number in professional sports is 868.

On the other end of the seriousness spectrum, Robyn Meredith (known in her college days as Robyn Berry) recently wrote The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China, and What It Means For All of Us. Robyn (pictured) is the Hong Kong correspondent for Forbes, and her New York Times bestseller was the subject of an extended publicity push in late summer. Click here to watch Robyn on “The Charlie Rose Show.”

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Travelers' Tales Solas Awards: Know The Rules Before Entering!

Sherman Oaks, California

If you are a travel writer about to enter the Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing competition (with its looming October 15th deadline), you need to know what’s buried in the fine print of the contest’s rules:

1. T.T.’s Contest = T.T.’s Rules. Many of Travelers’ Tales’ Rules are triggered by your entering the competition, not by your winning it. By clicking the boxes and buttons on the entry pages on the T.T. website, you are legally binding yourself to T.T.'s Rules. Make sure you can live with all the Rules before entering; you have to assume that every Rule will be enforced exactly as written without mercy.

2. T.T. Can Do Anything With Your Submission. By submitting (not by winning – merely by submitting) an article, you grant permission to Travelers’ Tales to use your article in any way in any media – or give someone else the right to do anything with it. T.T. can sell your article to a magazine, post it to its website, reprint excerpts out of context, hire Anthony Hopkins to record an audiobook, or grant its office manager’s second cousin the Ukrainian-language film rights. The permission you give to T.T. is “non-exclusive,” which means you also retain all of those rights. But the fact that you share the rights with T.T. makes your article harder to sell, particularly to an outfit – like T.T. – which demands that “you must control all rights in the work.” (Rules, Paragraph 4).

Yes, T.T.'s Rules forbid the submission of an article which has been submitted to a different contest which used an exact copy of T.T.'s Rules. Take from that what you will.

3. Your Payments Are Strictly Limited. You could win one of the contest’s three prizes and earn the specified prize amount. You could also earn $100 if your article is printed in one of T.T.’s books. But, if T.T. makes any other use of your article, you are not entitled to any financial compensation. Zero. Zilch. None. T.T. does not even have to tell you about its additional use of your article. (Rules, Paragraph 4.)

4. There Are Only Three Cash Prizes. Although the contest features 21 separate categories of travel writing, the top three winners in each category receive only a "certificate of recognition." All entries in all categories are considered for the Travel Story of the Year category, which awards three cash prizes (Gold: $1,000; Silver: $750; Bronze: $500). Don't think that each category awards three cash prizes, because that's not the case. (Rules, Par. 6.)

5. Don’t Leave Town. To collect one of the three cash prizes, you must complete an “affidavit of eligibility” and sign some additional paperwork, but the kicker is that you must do so within 10 days of the “date of personal delivery or of sender’s postmark.” (Rules, Par. 7.) This seems a strange limitation for a travel writing contest, since travel writers, by definition, spend a lot of time out of town. So, if T.T. puts a notice in the mail on March 1st but you don’t see it until March 11th, T.T. could claim you have forfeited the cash.

6. T.T.’s Lawyers Send The Bill To You. Let’s say you win the Gold cash prize with an article loaded with new and provocative insights into Venice (it’s possible). An embittered loser who submitted a clichéd article about the romance of the gondoliers gets mad and sues T.T. Even though the claim has no merit, you – merely by entering the contest – are responsible for T.T.’s legal fees to defend the suit. (Rules, Par. 8.) The fees for knocking out a frivolous lawsuit before trial can run from $25,000 to more than $100,000.

Finally, T.T. charges an entry fee. Contests that charge a fee for entry are a topic of controversy among writers, and you should read up on the topic before entering any writing contest with an entry fee.

If you decide to enter, please understand that your rights are substantially limited by the Rules.


Friday, October 05, 2007

"Count On Me Singapore"

not ironic. 100% earnest. Note how the casting reflects Singapore's ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians. The old lady's great.

Singaporean pop star Dick Lee also pokes gentle fun -- the only kind allowed -- at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his powerful father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Five Soft Voices Raised Above The Din

Sherman Oaks, California

Five new contributors have joined Vagablogging, the travel blog edited by long-term travel guru Rolf Potts. If you have not yet read Potts' book Vagabonding, what exactly are you waiting for?

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Arthur Frommer On Fortress America

Sherman Oaks, California

Travel guru Arthur Frommer spoke last week with the NYT Freakonomics blog:

Q: As the dollar continues to fall against the euro, why aren’t more Europeans traveling to America?

A: Because of the psychological, bureaucratic, and political barriers that we have erected to hinder their travels here. In many of the countries that don’t enjoy our visa-waiver program, it takes three to four months simply to receive an appointment to apply for a visa. Once would-be travelers finally get inside one of our consulates, they are questioned about personal characteristics having nothing to do with security or terrorism, but rather with the possibility that they will overstay their visas and become illegal immigrants. One tour operator handling incoming travel from Poland recently said that half of the people he wishes to send to the U.S. are turned down for visas because they are young, single, without property or homes that they own, etc., and are thus more likely to stay in the U.S. illegally.

When people do travel here, they are treated like criminals upon arrival at customs, or, at best, received with cold discourtesy. The result of all this is that travel to the U.S. has fallen off by close to 20 percent since the year 2000, while most other countries are enjoying a rise of 20 percent or more in their incoming tourism! The decline of our own tourism industry creates a loss of more than $100 billion a year, tens of billions of dollars in tax revenues, and hundreds of thousands of jobs. The administration’s handling of the matter is a scandal. And, by creating the impression among people of the world that we are an arrogant, cold, and unfriendly people, we make ourselves less safe.

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Monday, October 01, 2007


Sherman Oaks, California

I don't have anything to add about the events in Burma. I wrote an earlier review of two excellent books about Burma.